The River Forest Development Review Board voted 5-0 last Thursday night to recommend approval of Dominican University’s $45 million campus improvement plan to the village board. The recommendation is a key step toward the university receiving a final OK for the construction of a new academic building, 550-car parking garage and a new driveway connecting that garage to Thatcher Avenue.
The design and impact of the garage and academic building drew no opposition. At an initial meeting on Sept. 15 concerns were raised by River Forest fire officials that there was inadequate space for fire equipment to access the east side of the proposed garage. Chief James Eggert informed the administration Sept. 30 that the developer had moved the garage some 20 feet to the west.
However, two groups that have staunchly opposed the driveway construction on environmental grounds continued to argue that the issue of ownership of the property on which the driveway providing access to Thatcher Avenue is still not legally settled. Long-time opponent Victor Guarino produced a letter Friday from Forest Preserve General Supt. Steven Bylina dated Oct. 6 and addressed to members of the Forest Preserve Board of Commissioners stating that a special counsel has been formally appointed to look into the issue.
The approval vote came after DRB chairman pro tem Dennis McMahon suggested placement of two amendments to the motion. The DRB’s approval stipulates that traffic on Thatcher will be monitored by village staff to determine if a proposed outbound left-hand turn lane causes any significant traffic problems over the next year. Additionally, board members made formal note of pointed neighborhood concerns over pedestrian safety on the 1200 and 1300 blocks of Park Avenue, recommending that the village assess parking and traffic ordinance enforcement issues relative to Park Avenue one year out from completion of the parking garage.
Sixteen people addressed the board, with the majority urging approval of the project. Many of those supporting approval lived on or near Park Avenue, and said they saw the new garage and planned campus traffic restrictions off of and onto Park as an urgently needed solution to the growing threat posed by heavy traffic on the street.
“I’m here to tell you that the amount and speed of traffic has already reached a crisis level,” said Rose Loiaicono, who lives with her husband and children on Park. “Garbage trucks, delivery trucks, soccer moms dropping kids off, students.” Loiaicono told the board that their decision will not affect the daily lives of driveway opponents, many of whom don’t live in River Forest, but that, “it will affect mine.”
Four individuals spoke against allowing the connecting driveway to be built, all of them arguing that the issue of ownership of the strip of forested land directly west of the Dominican campus had not been decided with finality.
Guarino, one of four individuals who spoke against allowing the connecting driveway to be built, said he is the steward of the 4-plus acre “green triangle” of disputed land directly west of the Dominican campus. He referred to a famous Mark Twain quip, saying “Reports of Dominican’s ownership of the ‘green triangle’ have been greatly exaggerated.” That issue ultimately would be decided by a judge, he told the board, adding, “We adamantly oppose Dominican University’s access road proposal.”
Dominican Vice President for Business Amy McCormack said Friday she was aware of the appointment of special counsel George Leighton, a retired federal judge. The university, she said, sent numerous documents related to that parcel to Forest Preserve attorneys within the past 10 days for Leighton’s review.
“We’re confident his findings will agree with ours,” she said.
McCormack’s contention was backed by several groups. A plat survey uncovered by Dominican attorney Mike Ighoe showed that the land in question in fact belonged to Dominican. On Aug. 19, the Chicago Title and Trust Company issued title insurance to the property, vested to Dominican University.
However both Guarino and fellow environmentalist Benjamin Cox attempted to argue that the Forest Preserve had acted as the sole steward of the property for the past several decades, raising a claim of “adverse possession” due to what they termed Dominican’s neglect and abandonment of the property.
Neither the DRB nor Village Attorney Jon Gilbert bought that argument, however. Gilbert characterized the land controversy as a non-issue.
“The applicant has made a showing that they?#34;on the face of it?#34;they own the property,” said Gilbert. “The argument is between the university and a party that doesn’t have a [legal] interest in [the property] who says that a third party owns it. “[But] that third party has not claimed title to the property.”
“There’s no dispute,” he concluded. “It’s not an issue.”
Seeking to clarify what she termed a general misconception, Dominican’s Jennifer GoodSmith stressed Monday that the university is seeking use of just one-twentieth of an acre for the driveway, not the entire 3.8 acres along Thatcher Road, regardless of ownership.
The DRB will consider a formal of findings of facts prepared by Gilbert on Oct. 20 before forwarding its recommendation to the village board.